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By Sean Tingey, of VBFA.

An unwanted fire event can harm the environment, the economy, and human life. In comparison, the three main pillars defining sustainability are: environmental impact, economic impact, and impact on human behavior. So, the question may appropriately be asked—Can an architectural design be considered sustainable if it cannot resist the spread of fire? This article proposes that a fire-susceptible design is not sustainable and explains why this is the case.

Environmental Considerations

When a building is under design, standards, such as LEED and Net Zero, aim to minimize environmental impact during construction and throughout the operation of the building. To be specific, the aim of these programs is to limit the carbon footprint from construction operations and sourcing, as well as to limit the carbon emissions produced directly or indirectly by building systems over the useful life of the building.

Ignore for a moment the environmental impact of construction and sourcing, and only consider the operational (non-embodied) carbon emissions. Using information provided by the US Energy Information Administration, it is estimated that a typical 50,000-square-foot office building may emit 681,000 pounds of CO2 each year indirectly from electricity usage sourcing from a coal burning power plant. Assuming the life of the building to be 50 years in duration before ceasing operations, this results in a total emission of over 34 million pounds of CO2.

Under the same conditions, now assume that this same building supported a rapid fire spread and experienced a total loss, i.e., 80% consumed. It can be estimated that as much as 2.5 million pounds of CO2 are emitted from this deflagration in a single day. This value is of course an estimate, as the true value for a fully involved fire in the built environment varies widely depending on the exact pyrolysis of its contents, percentage burned, and local contributing factors.

The impact to the environment from a single fire event in a non-high performance (LEED) building may account for roughly 7% of the total CO2 emissions. That does not include the impact of fire-fighting operations, demolition, and reconstruction. From a generalized risk perspective, assuming a 0.001 frequency of fire/year, results in fire accounting for 1-2% of non-embodied carbon emissions for similarly constructed office buildings and 4% for reduced operating emissions buildings such as LEED certified buildings.

Human Behavior Considerations

Although CO2 accounts for one of the main culprits behind greenhouse gas emissions and ozone layer depletion, fires in the built environment also produce other toxic byproduct such as carbon monoxide (CO) hydrogen cyanide (HCN), hydrogen chloride (HCl), nitrogen oxide and dioxide (NO & NO2), and many other organic and inorganic irritants. These toxins and other super toxicants generated from single fire incidents account for loss of life during the fire event, and in the many years following the incident.

On June 14, 2017, the 24-story Grenfell Tower in West London experienced a devastating fire starting from a refrigerator electrical fire on the fourth floor. Seventy-two people lost their lives during the fire event. However, the true number of lives lost is yet unknown, as it was reported that the carcinogenic chemical levels were more than 150 times higher than normal within the surrounding blocks and neighborhoods following the fire event.

Yet unmeasured are the effects of post-trauma anxiety, depression, and panic left within the minds of the survivors and witnesses, many of whom live with incomprehensible memories and experiences rendering them unable to resume day-to-day tasks as they would have otherwise had they not experienced the incident.

Economic Considerations

Perhaps the most visible impact of an unwanted fire spread is the resultant loss of business continuity as companies are displaced, resources are turned to combustion byproduct, tangible and server-based goods are lost, and revenue is almost immediately halted. According to the NFPA, across the United States in 2021, fire-departments responded to 1,353,500 fires, resulting in over $15.9 billion in property damage.

In breaching this topic, sceptics may respond with a “that’s why we have insurance” type of attitude. Unfortunately, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, one in four businesses that experience a major disaster do not or cannot return to business. While insurance is necessary, the discrepancies in itemizing property and assigning value to intangible goods leave some not receiving what is necessary to fully recover.

With the delicacy of the eco-system pinned against global climate change, Time Magazine’s newsletter appropriately stated, “Good luck getting insurance when your country is on fire.”

In the current construction climate, fire protection systems, products, analysis, or measures are often viewed as a nice-to-have, or only-when-required type of implementation. However, history has proven, and the future will yet prove, the important role fire protection measures play in social, economic, and environmental sustainability.


Energy Information Administration (EIA)- about the Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS). (n.d.).

Factory Mutual Global. (n.d.). The Influence of Risk Factors on Sustainable Development Technical Report.

Society of Fire Protection Engineers. (n.d.). Sustainability and Fire Resilience: Webinar 1 Setting the Scene.

NFPA report – Fire loss in the United States. (n.d.).,fire%20somewhere%20in%20the%20nation

Worland, J. (2023, June 7). Good Luck Getting Insurance When Your Country is On Fire. Time.

Sean Tingey, FPE, is a licensed fire protection engineer with VBFA. Sean and the VBFA fire protection team provide high level detail fire sprinkler design services across all market sectors for contractors, architects, and facility owners alike. They also provide design and analysis of smoke control systems, non-water based fire protection systems, and complex special hazards. Additionally, the team is currently one of the foremost expert in plan review of fire sprinkler systems.